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Sitcom originality: lost and found

Early in Bravo's ''Situation: Comedy," a sitcom-making reality contest, a plastic-fantastic duo sums up their pilot idea: ''It's 'Cheers' meets 'Northern Exposure,' " one of them gushes. Later, another writer proudly describes his script as a mix of ''Cheers," ''Northern Exposure," and ''Green Acres." Because as everyone knows, it's just not funny without a cricket-playing pig.

And these are the illustrious finalists chosen from among the 10,000 creators who submitted scripts to ''Situation: Comedy," which premieres tonight at 8. Their concepts -- most of them resoundingly simplistic and old school -- are supposedly the nation's finest, and two of them will ultimately be chosen by the comedy geniuses at NBC (Bravo's corporate cousin). At the end of the season, viewers will vote on which pilot will air on Bravo.

''Situation: Comedy" is an unintentionally damning portrait of how today's originality-starved, demographic-pandering sitcoms actually make it to air. It's quite entertaining, as it gives us a fascinating anatomy of the network comedy from pitch meetings to casting auditions. As the episodes unfold, and the two finalists build their shows from scratch, we get to see exactly what every TV screenwriter with a dream has to go through. If you've ever wondered how these shows get picked up by networks, who directs them, what role producers play, and why certain types of actors are cast, ''Situation: Comedy" will take you to all the meetings with all the answers.

But the show is also a little depressing, as it illustrates how top-rated comedies are as much the result of business compromises as they are of comedic ingenuity. You may well enjoy ''Situation: Comedy," but you may not enjoy what it reveals about how shows make it into prime time. Through its ''Project Greenlight"-like contestant drama, it shows Hollywood creativity getting tamped down by committee decisions, and it shows a development process unfriendly to the visions of TV auteurs such as that fluke among flukes, Larry David.

During the show, which is coproduced by Sean Hayes, who plays Jack on ''Will & Grace," and Todd Milliner, I repeatedly thought about HBO's outstanding ''The Comeback," which never would have survived the ''Situation: Comedy" competition.

Here is a comedy so innovative and uncompromising, it could only have emerged in the less ratings-bound world of pay cable. And yet even there it seems to have scared away its potential audience with its relentlessly unglossy comic truths. ''The Comeback" doesn't even have the cult buzz it deserves. It should be the show TV lovers are touting as one of the medium's great unwatched gems, like ''Arrested Development"; instead, the critics quickly dumped it when it premiered last month and most viewers haven't even heard of it.

Is ''The Comeback" too complex even for cable viewers, despite its brilliance? Have we all been so deluged with one-dimensional network clones that we can't easily accommodate the truly offbeat? Is the shiny, happy veneer of network comedy ruining our appreciation for darker, more challenging efforts?

''The Comeback" is so many things, it could never accurately be reduced to the Hollywood math that puts ''Cheers" and ''Northern Exposure" on the lips of every hopeful at every pitch meeting ever held. It's too rich to be hammered down to a line -- something the players in ''Situation: Comedy" are urged to do with their ideas. To encapsulate the concept of ''The Comeback" -- it's a fictional reality show about an actress making a comeback on a bad sitcom, made by a real sitcom star making a comeback -- is to lose the listener's attention quickly. I remember being greeted with the same glazed eyes when trying to describe ''Curb Your Enthusiasm" early on.

The most recognizable influence on ''The Comeback" may be BBC's ''The Office," as both are cringing portraits of awesomely grating people, as well showcases for amazingly painful performances -- in this case by Lisa Kudrow. And neither show fills in its awkward silences with laugh-tracks and one-liners; they let viewers writhe in discomfort.

But ''The Comeback" is no rip-off, as Kudrow's Valerie Cherish makes her unique way through the demoralizingly youth-obsessed culture of Hollywood. She is an altogether inimitable creature, with her vaudevillian vocal stylings, her controlling temperament, her Shelley Long-like plasticity, and her adoring hairdresser, Mickey. Kudrow has created a character quite distinct from Phoebe from ''Friends," and just as distinctive.

In the guise of a reality show, ''The Comeback" tracks Valerie's endless humiliations now that she's no longer an It girl. Everything that happens to her conspires to take her down a few notches, to embarrass her in front of the reality cameras. Not only is she too old to be a sitcom lead, but she literally finds herself crawling down a plane aisle or wiping dog excrement from her bristly, blown-dried hair. Her comedowns are both deeply psychological and slapstick. Only rarely does our heroine prevail, a moment of respite for viewers from our almost sadistic enjoyment.

While it goofs on the artifice of reality TV, with Valerie trying to censor the ever-present cameras, ''The Comeback" also delivers a hard poke in the ribs of mediocre sitcoms. Valerie has a role as the insipid Aunt Sassy in a brash show called ''Room & Bored," opposite four half-witted, half-clad youths flirting on a cheesy soundstage. The ''Room & Bored" writers are a bunch of crude dudes, and their cynicism about the TV viewing audience is obvious.

This sitcom-within-a-sitcom plays like a broad parody of a network comedy, with its tired sex jokes. And yet ''Room & Bored" is also familiar enough to be real. We see sitcoms like ''Room & Bored" all over prime time, the result of the process that ''Situation: Comedy" exposes. Unlike the inspired ''The Comeback," they are little more than the result of a rigorously scientific process, one where ''Cheers" meets ''Northern Exposure" and dumb meets dumber.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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